Eyewitness Accounts of the Loma Prieta Quake in California 1989

This page contains five eye witness accounts of the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit California in 1989. All five people were living and working in the city when the ‘quake struck.

By Julianna Bozsik

The Loma Prieta quake that we had in ’89 measured 7.2 (on the Richter Scale)

Imagine yourself coming home from a good day’s work (or schooling). You’re getting ready for dinner (an early one about 5pm). Food is cooking on the stove and in the oven, the air is very still both inside and outside when you go to feed your pups. Nothing SEEMS out of the ordinary, until you begin to notice that outside no birds are chattering, no wind is blowing, everything, including the balmy air itself, seems to be listening…waiting…watching.

The animals don’t seem very hungry (when most of the time, they’re jumping all over the place at the prospect of food); in fact, one of your dogs doesn’t really want to come out of his sleeping box in the garage. You coax him out, however, and he appreciates his meal, but hurries back to his box and the other one follows. Now, you’re getting the idea there’s something amiss, though you still aren’t quite sure what it is.

Back inside, everything seems normal enough. You set the table, the family sits down for a meal when… “Look at that!” you say, while pointing to the hanging lamp that begins to sway, ever so slightly, above the table. The light flickers a little and Dad tells you start eating; it’s only a little power surge. Stubbornly, you continue to eye the lamp. “Look!” you say again. “I think it’s an earthquake.” No response. “No, REALLY, I think its an…”

Suddenly Dad and Mom both look up and see that the lamp is now swinging, rather fiercely.

A few choice words from Dad and he’s telling everyone to head for the doorways (which are the strongest places in the house). By this time, the nick-nacs on the shelves are furiously rattling, the floor feels like a huge serpent has decided his back is hurting him and he needs to adjust himself, the electricity goes out, you thank God you’ve turned the stove and oven off, pictures begin to fall (you hear the first few in the back rooms), windows are rattling, the cat races under the couch, the dogs are whining, and the wooden structure about you gives off these horrible creaking-crackles (and you suddenly realize how easily a house can collapse).

What you see, for at least a few seconds, outdoors is a bizarre swaying of everything–trees, telephone poles, lightpoles, other houses—that makes you think your vision has gone askew (similar to a television screen that has not yet fixed its reception. Almost as quick as it began, it stops!

Then, slowly, the air begins to move, your family members begin talking, and you find yourself moving from room to room, assessing the damage.

It doesn’t really hit you that you’ve been in a quake, until, after wandering through the house seeing what has happened, you realize you have no electricity. Strangely enough, I was not frightened during the quake; in fact, I thought it was AMAZING! What truly unnerved me was when my Dad turned on our battery-operated radio and we discovered that every station, except one, was dead, and the one station that was still alive, gave just static. It’s at that moment, you feel very alone and separated from the world (even though we have neighbors all around). On top of that, the phone lines went dead. It reminded me of some of those old Science Fiction movie thrillers where aliens come to take over the planet and the people in the movie seem so isolated.

In the days that followed, after I learned of the tragic collapse of the Cyprus freeway ramp (I had a student who was in my English Comp. class who wrote for the school newspaper tell me all the gory details, as he had seen them) and the destruction in the SF Marina district and the mess down south of us in Los Gatos and other areas, I felt very lucky to have been at home where I did not have to worry about my family—I knew they were safe. All of my brothers and my sister live at least 90 miles away—it was THEY who were worried about us when they couldn’t get through on the phone.

At Ohlone College, many of my students had their stories to tell, like one man who was working on the 14th floor of one of the businesses in SF. He had just called his wife and was talking to her when the quake began—he had to tell her he was moving under his desk, right when they were cut off! Of course, she was frantic until he made it safely home.

And then there was my friend Edward who was driving home across the Dumbarton Bridge (one of the many bridges we have that spans the Bay). He said people were pulling over to the sides of the bridge highway because they all thought they had flat tires! And what a traffic jam ensued! It took him 3 and a half hours to go 10 miles home!

By Rich de Sousa

It was the beginning of baseball’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics in October 1989 (I forget the exact date). The long awaited dream matchup called the “Bay Bridge” World Series was finally a reality.

It was approximately 5 pm and I was driving home to Berkeley from my job in Oakland. I was going north on Martin Luther King Jr Way approaching Alcatraz, traveling approximately 30 mph, when suddenly I thought I had a flat tire. I slowed down to a stop and realized that all the street lighting poles around me were swaying and whipping about furiously.

It was an earthquake!!

I could feel the car bouncing around under me and although I had experienced numerous other earthquakes, this one didn’t seem to bother me as much since I felt safe inside my car. The whole episode lasted about 10 seconds, and the street light poles stopped swaying after about a minute. All around me other vehicles had also come to a stop and their occupants were all looking about, some quite frightened and others bemused by the experience.

We all soon parted company, on our way to our original destinations. As I approached my apartment house in Berkeley, I noticed a cloud of smoke coming from approximately the direction of my building. I really started to become concerned since one of the greatest by product of earthquakes are fires. My fears were unfounded as it became apparent as I got closer that it was the repair garage next to my apartment which had caught fire during the earthquake. The fire department was already on the scene and pouring water on the building. In retrospect, I realized that my good fortune could have been different. Had many other fires started in Berkeley, the fire department would have been overcome by the lack of manpower and equipment. Also, had the earthquake damaged the water lines, there would not have been any water to quench the fire, which then could have spread to my apartment building next door.

When I finally arrived at my apartment building, the police had already cordoned off the building because they were concerned that the fire department may not have been able to douse the fire. In the interest of safety the police and the fire department had evacuated all the residents in my building and all the occupants of the adjoining businesses until the fire was contained.

Finally, after waiting for an hour, we were allowed to enter our respective buildings to gather our belongings just incase the building was damaged by the earthquake. I entered my apartment to a ransacked scene. All my bookshelves which faced east and west had fallen over in my. I had books everywhere on the floor. One of my stereo speakers had fallen over because it was pushed over by one of the bookshelves. My two birds were in a state of panic and were glad to see me. I carried the cage out of the apartment, along with some clothes and placed these in my car, which was parked away from the apartment building.

After the fire was completely quenched, the fire department was able to do a survey of our building to verify that it was safe and structurally sound to be reoccupied. By the time we were allowed back into our apartments it was nearly 8 pm and it was getting dark.

It was quite a memorable evening and I was thankful that fate had placed me from harms way. Numerous people were killed throughout the area and hundreds of millions of dollars damage occured.

Incidentally, they had to cancel the game for fear of structural damage to the stadium. The series resumed the next day after the civil engineers determined that the stadium was undamaged. The Oakland Athletics beat the San Francisco Giants 4 games to 0 (I think).

By Todd Wagner

When I left work, I got into my car, backed out of my parking space, and started driving across the parking lot at Intel Corp. About 20 yards away, and still in the parking lot, the car started to wobble. I thought I had a flat tire, but when I got out I realized that the ground was swaying like the deck of a small boat.

At Intel I was a member of the Emergency Response Team, so I immediately parked the car, put on my hard hat and went back in.

Meanwhile the other employees were evacuating the building and assembling in groups in the parking lot so we could make sure everyone was out. The building was a mess with ceiling tiles all over the floor, alongside notebooks and a few computer monitors. In one office a vent fan had fallen out of the ceiling. Fortunately, there were no injuries, and I spent the next hour escorting people back into the building to get their purses, car keys, etc, so they could leave.

I had it easy! Other members of the Emergency Response Team had the job of going into the lab, filled with dangerous liquids and gasses, to check for spills and leaks. They had to wear special plastic suits and and carry air tanks like scuba divers use. There was no electricity.

Going home was a mess, since all of the signal lights were out. On the freeway one overpass I normally use had sunk about 6 inches! My house was even worse. No electricity (meaning no lights or vacuum cleaner). About a foot of water had sloshed out of my aquarium, two TV sets had fallen to the floor, and one bookcase had toppled over sending a stereo speaker into the wall (leaving a triangular hole where the corner of the speaker hit).

All of this was minor compared to the kitchen. Most of the cabinets had opened and everything fell to the floor. Broken plates, glasses, ketchup, mustard, spices, wine, salad dressing, flour, etc, formed a couple of inches of sludge on the floor. It was so thick I couldn’t sweep it up or mop it up, and the broken glass made it impossible to pick up by hand. I cleaned the kitchen with a shovel!

The good news was that my house, which was built by a guy who used to work for the Geological Survey and knew a lot about earthquakes, suffered no structural damage. For the next two days, still without electricity, we read by candlelight and listened to the radio. I also spent several hours cleaning the garage. I build a lot of stuff and there were hundreds of nuts and bolts all over the floor.

Also, one good friend of mine had driven to UC Berkeley the day of the quake. She had driven through the Cypress Stucture 30 minutes before it collapsed!

By David Boszik

I have experienced earthquakes on three occasions, though none of them were of great magnitude.

The first one was while I was at the university in 1985. I had just finished classes for the day and was headed for my car in the parking lot. There are different kinds of quakes. This one presented itself in a wave motion. At first I thought I was dizzy, but I noticed the telephone poles were tilting back and forth. The ground took on a liquid-like motion also. The whole episode lasted less than ten seconds, but it seemed longer.

The second experience was while I was asleep. Well, I was until the earthquake!!! This one felt like some large vehicle struck the front of the house. It was a very strong jolt followed by a shaking-bouncing-like motion. This type of ‘quake’ I feel is more scary than the wavy kind. For one, you are awakened from your sleep, and everything around you is chattering.

The third occurrence was the ‘BIG’ quake we had in the San Francisco Bay Area a few years ago. I was shopping at a store approximately 120 miles from San Francisco when I noticed the shelves of the clothing department were shifting to and fro. I began looking around and noticed the hanging sale signs were slowly swinging. I mentioned to the person I was with that it felt like we had an earthquake, nobody in the store but me felt it! A few moments later when I reached the checkout stand, someone from another part of the store said that there had been a large quake in the Bay Area.

Most quakes are never felt, and most of the ones you feel, never amount to much. I can just say that any quake is a very humbling experience indeed.

By Marianne Boszik

There is never any warning. The ground shakes like a large truck is going by, but there isn’t any street. The house groans and rocks. The walls shiver and roll. When the earthquake is happening, it seems like time stops. You hold your breath and count. Your mind numbs as seconds become interminable.

If you are trapped in a room, you look for someplace solid…you may have time to get there. It is often over before you know it. The lamp swings and the pictures shift their moorings. The cans tip on their sides, and some may jiggle and fall off the edge.

As the earthquake ends, you can breath again, and time resumes. Suddenly, the spill is spreading across the floor, the dust sifts down after its disturbance. You asses the damage, clean it up, and watch, and wait. You know the aftershocks will come, but you don’t know when or how hard. When they come, you hold your breath again…

Mostly, you live your life and don’t dwell on the instabilities of the land. Life is too uncertain to worry about how you will die. I’m sure there are worse ways, and natural disasters happen anywhere. So you enjoy the sun and wind and watch the quiet earth, as time rolls on in earthquake country.